Home PageBlogEvolution of PsychotherapyExistential Therapy and the Future by Rollo May, PhD

Existential psychotherapy is based on the model of human nature and experience. It focuses on concepts that are universally applicable to human existence including death, freedom, responsibility, and the meaning of life. The following presentation was given by Dr. Rollo May at the 1985 Evolution of Psychotherapy conference. You can find the full recording of this presentation and many other historical recordings in our Evolution of Psychotherapy Archives.


Evolution of Psychotherapy 1985 –
Invited Address 12
Existential Therapy and the Future by Rollo May, PhD

Text transcript below…


Pictured: Rollo R. May, PhD and Virginia Satir

Address by Rollo May 

Mr. Chairman, I’m sorry to say I cannot speak to you with those lights in my eyes. I cannot speak to anybody I cannot see. So I’m going to put on a hat I borrowed from a friend. And I hope, [APPLAUSE] I hope it doesn’t look too ridiculous. But at least that makes it possible for us to have communication rather than recitation. Now, if you want to learn about existential psychotherapy, read Irving Yalom’s book called Existential Psychotherapy, or my “Discovery of Being”, because I’m not going to try to do a survey of what existentialism is this morning. But I do want to say some things that I think are tremendously important to me, and I hope for you as well. When Karl Menninger was visiting at our house recently, I asked him how he, since he was the name practically synonymous with the mental health movement for some 50 years, how he would define therapy. And he answered, people have been talking to each other for 1000s of years. The question is, how did it become worth $60 an hour.

Now, this is an age of therapy. There’s a therapist for everything. There are over 300 kinds of therapy for human beings, not only psychological therapy, there was marriage therapists, sex therapists, voice therapists, and even therapists for your pets at home. You probably have heard of a conversation between a dog and a cat in a suburban household. The cat has her therapist and asked the pet dog, why he does not have one. And he answers, I can’t have a therapist, because I’m not allowed on the couch.

Now, if you read history, you will discover that therapy, or therapy life experiences arise at a particular time in the development of each society. And this is the moment, the time when the society disintegrates at the time of radical transition that the society passes through. In classical Greece, for example, in the time of Socrates and Plato, when they were in search of goodness and truth, and beauty, there were practically no therapists. I have read very carefully that period, and I can scarcely ever find the word anxiety or guilt used at that time. That was the time when the great dramas, Escolas and Sophocles were writing, was the time the Parthenon was being built. It was the time when therapy was taken care of by the drama, the education, the dance, the arts, the regular practices of the society. But when you go further into Greek civilization, and you read, in the third and second and first century BC, you find something very different. There anxiety, and guilt are talked about all the time. The symbols and the mess that allayed anxiety earlier, are now defunct. And we find anxiety and guilt in neurotic degrees. There were the stoics, the epicureans, the cynics, the hedonists, along with a traditional platonists, and aristotelians, and all of the philosophers now turn to techniques very much like modern psychotherapy.

They talk to the people about how you can keep your palms from sweating all night, how you can get over your stage fright when you play the lyre on the stage in front of a lot of people. The epicureans had a doctrine that they called at ataraxia, which meant seeking a tranquility of mind by rationally balancing your pleasures. And the stoics had their idea called apathia, a passionless calm, to be attained by being above the conflicts of emotion.

Now therapy and the Hellenistic period, which is parallel to our period now became rampant, and the offices, the lecture halls of these philosophers began to look like outpatient clinics. Everybody was coming with their particular problem. Plutarch even wrote a book at that time, called the anxious man and one of the writers of the day, tells us about Epicurus. And he writes Epicurious saw man in full enjoyment of riches and reputation, and happy in the fair fame of their children. Yet for all that, he found aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage and forced to vent themselves in recalcitrant repining.

That was written 2000 years ago, and is amazing, but a description of our own, aching hearts in every home, are being racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage and forced to give ourselves, vent ourselves in recalcitrant repining. Other philosophers then became therapists. And then when there are no symbols or myths that transcend the particular society, as in that day, and as in our own day, the individuals no longer had specific age to transcend their normal crises of life, the crises of severe illness, chronic illness, loss of employment, death of loved ones, anxiety and guilt and our own death.

At that time, the therapists were very much a part of the society. Now, if you read also, at the end of the Middle Ages, you will find that whereas before the 14th century, every peasant knew the meaning of the myths that were pictured in the windows, the glass windows of the Gothic cathedrals. But then in the 14th century, when the Middle Ages began its decline, we had a terrible century. And this is what Barbara Tuchman, in her book writes, a distant mirror. And it’s a mirror she writes, as the description of our own age, the therapist then were rampant. They were called by different names, some were sorcerers, some were called witches, soothsayers, and other names that are quite uncomplimentary in our day.

Remember Macbeth, in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth went to the witches. Now Macbeth was not an ignorant man, he was an intelligent, rational citizen of his day. He went to the witches to find out what was going to happen. Now, we are in such a state in our present age. A valedictorian, graduating from Stanford a couple of years ago, described his class as not knowing how it relates to the past, or the future, as having no life sustaining beliefs, secular or religious, and consequently, having no goals, no path of effective action. Now, this is a statemen that could fit 1000s and possibly even hundreds of 1000s of college graduates, in our age, when the humanities are being dropped out of college is on every side.

Our purposes then become eroded. It takes away our sense of identity, our sense of self, and we feel like the poet Yeats, who wrote, things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. And what rough beast is our comeback at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. Now it is no wonder that we live in an age of therapy. And Yates was so fearful of – this slouches, this rough beast, slouches towards Bethlehem, instead of Jesus being born, and now as a rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem, to be born. And what he was so afraid of, was the mechanical human being. Then human being, who was described as the neurotic of our present day, was uncertain of the reality of his own existence. who is competitive, concerned with the fear of death, a client not having specific symptoms, but being purposeless, being alienated and complaining of boredom and compulsive behavior. This is a description, not only of the narcissistic type in psychotherapy, it’s a discussion. It’s a description that has been used in existential psychotherapy, from my book, The Meaning of Anxiety and, and Man’s Search for Himself, way back in the early 50s.

Now, Yeats was not far from the mark when in his poem, he believed that the mechanization of human beings would destroy us. Techniques, the pronouncements of “how-to” are an expression of this tendency. And you will have heard during this past week, many ideas of techniques, how to do this, how to do that. But the existentialists are not very much interested in techniques. What we are interested in is the meaning of the techniques, the techniques, it seems to me, hit their high point, or if I may say, so their low point in the headline across the last issue of Psychology Today. It says, wallow an hour each day in your worries, it helps.

Now, Phillip Reef wrote a book a decade and a half ago, called The Triumph of the Therapeutic. And he said in this, where family and nation once stood for church and party, there will be a hospital and the theater, too. The normative institutions of the next culture. Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when I believe the theory of the ascetic lost precedence to “one feels”, the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely, the therapist will be the secular spiritual guide. Now, I am both surprised at the prediction, the accuracy of the prediction of Reef some 20 years ago. And I’m also very worried about it. Because if the fate of modern man, if the spiritual fate lies in our hands, it indeed, is a tremendous burden.

And our culture does not seem to be helping us. The great emphasis in this culture on making money. Look at the great amount of commercialism. The quick fix by winning $2 million on the lottery. These ideas existential therapy would regard as not as the answer, but as the problem. And the problem, unfortunately, seems to be increasing. I was taught as a boy that it is wrong to gamble. And now I cannot live in my present state, California, without gambling. Without the lottery, I cannot go to New Hampshire where I go often in the summer to my farm, without also taking part in the lottery. And this is all, we all wait for the quick fix, the $2 million that we may earn in this form of gambling.

Now, when you consider the rising rate of suicides among young people, from 15 to 26, a rate rising 300% in the last two decades, then we remember this graduate of Stanford. And we ask ourselves, what is wrong with our society, that there should be this desire not to live on the part of these suicidal young people? What do they have to look forward to, except an age that will be struggling along with Russia and America with pistols at each other’s heads? Probably for, unfortunately, probably for some decades. What do we make of life that is worth living?

I was on a radio program a couple of weeks ago. And the people call in and ask you questions. And we were talking about the state of young people, the drugs and the panics, and the suicides. And a professor phoned me, saying that he was very worried about these suicides, and the state of use of drugs on the campus of San Francisco University. And I said, Tell me more about your students. And he said, Oh, my students, they have no problems at all. My students are music students, I teach music. Now, I remembered that a few days before, I had been in a hamburger joint someplace in San Francisco, and two young men had come in, one was humming a tune. And he said, this is from Mozart. Isn’t that beautiful? And the other had said, Yes, but do you know this aria, and he whistled another tune.

Now these were happy young man, they had something to love. They had their, their music, their art, life for them meant something. But what is the possibility of loving accounting, you can like accounting, because it helps you to get to some place where you can make your million dollars before you’re 35. But we have been dropping out of our college curriculum. Philosophy is almost dead. The literature is diminishing. Music and history… You can get through 72% of the colleges in America without studying one class of these three aspects of humanities. Now, as Aristotle said, it’s not life that is worth living. It is the good life.

Now, I proposed 30 years ago, that students hoping to become therapists, not to major in psychology and their undergraduate work, but the major in the humanities. For it is the humanities that give us myths and symbols, which all down through the ages have been men and women’s reflection of their own hearts. The myths and symbols that tell us most of all about the meaning of life for those people. And one can go through, as I say, the great majority of colleges without learning a thing about these things, the purpose of which is to make your life rich, to give you zest, to give you enthusiasm about the things that that each day will bring.

It’s a very fortunate thing, that Freud was educated in the classics. As a boy in grammar school, he kept his diary in the Greek language. Where can you even take the Greek language in our day? Jung and Rank, and other leaders and new thoughts in psychotherapy were all persons who had read the great works of human history. And that had a great deal to do with their new insights into the meaning of therapy. Bruno Bettelheim’s book on fairy tales, the uses of enchantment also shows his acquaintance with the humanities. And I recall with pleasure the book that Dr. Bettelheim wrote, indicating that Freud was really a great humanist, and it was mistranslated, his works were largely mistranslated, to seem mechanical, as they came across the Atlantic Ocean.

Now let us take one of the ancient myths, one that you probably are not terribly familiar with, and notice how the existentialist would interpret this myth. What I speak of, is the myth, Oedipus in Colonus. Freud made very clear the meaning of Oedipus Rex, which was Oedipus as the King, who had killed his father and married his mother. But it’s strange that I never have seen in psychoanalytic literature, any reference to the sequel to that, Oedipus in Colonus, that was written by Sophocles between the ages of 80 and 90, so we can be sure it had within it, the fruits of the wisdom of his long age.

Now, the existentialists are interested particularly in that myth, because it is simply, or that drama, because it is simply a picture of old Oedipus, now blind, led by one of his daughters, into a grove of trees, the grove at colonus, which is still there, incidentally, outside of Athens, and the drama is entirely made up by Oedipus pondering, am I guilty? Am I, what is the state of my soul that I have done these terrible things? And the pondering that he goes through and trying to find out the responsibility, trying to find out the the inner meaning of this marrying his mother, and his killing of his father.

Now, this is what the existentialist are interested in. When Theseus and some Athenians come out to this grove of woods, and Oedipus talks to them, this blind man is questioned by them, and his daughter puts it for the gods who threw you down, sustain you now, and in many ways, I think this drama is more significant than the first one about Oedipus. Now one theme, and as I’ve already implied, is the theme of guilt. Is Oedipus guilty for the killing of his father, and the marrying of his mother? And he defends himself against Creon, his uncle who was taken over Thebes since Oedipus was self ostracized, and he says to Creon, if then I came into the world, as I did come in wretchedness and met my father in a fight, not knowing who he was, and knocked him down, and not knowing that I killed him, nor whom I killed. Again, how could you find guilt in that unpremeditated act. As for my mother, Damn you, you have no shame, though you are her own brother, but neither of us knew the truth. And she bore my children. Well, I would not have married her willingly, nor willingly would I ever speak of it, and again, about his father, he cries out, I have a just extenuation, it is this, I did not know him, he wished to murder me, before the law, before God, I am innocent.

Now, what Oedipus is saying there, and all the way through this drama is responsibility. He has yes, but not guilt. And since the time of Freud, it’s been very clear that in the unconscious and conscious interplay, that guilt is a very different thing from a responsibility. We have a right to expect responsibility from the young people growing up, according to their age, and from others. We do not have the right to speak of others, in terms of guilt. Oedipus is there acting in accord with a moral order, which his own experience had taught him and enabled him to understand.

And then we are, we find another point in this drama, and that is, is Oedipus to be, is he particularly responsible in a way different from other men, because he has had these particular problems and Theseus, who has come out from Athens, Theseus the leader of the Athenians. A leader, Theseus is a once born man, he never had to go to a therapist, now Theseus says, For I too, was an exile as Oedipus is here. I, too, was an exile, I know I am only a man, I have no more to hope for in the end, than you have. Now a third theme in this pondering of Oedipus, about the meaning of the terrible tragedy that he has participated in.

A third point, his presence. Theseus asked of him, your presence, as you say, is a great blessing. This, this capacity to be completely present with somebody else is a tremendously important thing in all therapy. And it is especially emphasized in existential therapy. Oedipus goes on to say, one soul, I think, can often make atonement for many others, if it be devoted. There is also a clear symbolic element to make this point about presence. Namely, that it has been ordained that whatever country has the body of Oedipus after he dies, this country will enjoy forever peace. The concept of presence is particularly important in existential psychotherapy, Karl Jaspers, who originally was a psychiatrist, and then became an existential philosopher remarked in his psychiatric days, what we are missing, what opportunities of understanding we let pass by, because in a single, decisive moment, we were with all our knowledge, lacking in the simple virtue of full human presence.

Now, presence is not to be confined, to be confused with the sentimental attitude toward the client, but it depends firmly and consistently on how the therapist conceives of human beings. Any therapist is existential. Whether he is Jungian, Freudian, Rankian, or whatever. Any therapist is existential to the extent that with all his technical training, and all his knowledge of transference and all the other aspects of technical psychoanalysis, that he or she is still able to relate to the client as one existence communicating with another. That’s a phrase from Binswanger.

In my own experience, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann particularly had this power in a given therapeutic hour. She used to say to us, whom she’d supervise, and I was supervised by her for over a year, and she was my therapist for a short time. And a wonderfully intuitive woman. She used to say, the patient needs an experience, and not an explanation. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who died later of loneliness, a despairing kind of loneliness that shows that the best of us may have very severe problems. And she was writing a book, when she had the heart attack, on loneliness. Now, she had the ability to feel out what was going to come up in the dreams of her patients, several weeks ahead of time, by means of how she herself could feel. I’m not proposing that as a technique, it could be highly dangerous. But I am saying that some therapists who have the great ability of real presence can have this kind of relationship with, that closer relationship with their patients.

Now, I believe very much in Freud’s concept of transference. But I think is a great danger in our calling things transference as a way of avoiding the problem of our own presence. The concept of presence is what Socrates would have called the midwife. Completely real and being there, but being there with a specific purpose of helping the other person to bring forth a birth, some new life from within herself.

And the last emphasis that I wish to mention in this drama of Oedipus in Colonus, is the outworking of the myth of love. The messenger who came back to tell the people, in his report, of the marvelous death of Oedipus at best had gone away from the trees to some rocks in the background. And there, apparently he had been lifted up. Anyway, in any case, one of his daughters, then says, and yet one word, this was his last word, yet one word, said Oedipus, frees us of all the weight, and pain of life. And that word is love. I was very curious that this comes 600 years before Jesus and the Christian emphasis on love, that comes from what would be called technically a pagan man, but that word love frees us of all the weight and pain of life, if we can, and to the extent that we can experience it.

Now, Oedipus does not at all mean that love is the absence of aggression, or strong affects of anger. His sharp and violent temper was present at the crossroads, where he killed his father years before and exhibited in his sharp thrusts with Tiresias. This is still very much in evidence, in this last drama, it is unsubdued by suffering or maturity. And the fact that Sophocles, now an old man himself, does not see fit to remove or soften Oedipus, his aggression or his anger. This fact that the aggression and the angry affects means these are not the flaws that he has Oedipus get over. This leads support to our thesis. That the killing of the father and the marrying of the mother are not the most important points in the myth of Oedipus, but in his learning to live in accordance with the reality of the situation. Now, none of this comes up into Oedipus’ mind. He feels what he feels, he loves whom he loves. He is angry at whom he is angry, which seems to me to be saying that he’s not… Our purpose in therapy, as Oedipus back in Colunus puts it would not be to come to terms with society, or to learn to live in accordance with the reality requirements of civilization. It is a reconciliation with himself, and with the special persons one loves, with the meaning in his own life. And love is not thusly the opposite of anger or aggression. Old Oedipus will love only those he chooses to love. And when his son, who has already betrayed him, comes to try to get his forgiveness, old Oedepis says, or the song remarks, compassion limits even the power of God, but Oedipus will not have any of this what he believes is sentimentality.

Now his daughter, in describing, rather the messenger who comes back to the people standing there at Colonus, to describe Oedipus’ death, says, but some attendant from the train of heaven came for him, or else the underworld opened in love to the unlit door of Earth, for he was taken without lamentation, without illness or suffering. Indeed, his end was wonderful, if mortals ever wise.

Now one other point I want to emphasize, that comes up particularly in existential psychotherapy is the problem of death. Death is present wherever there is life. Death is believed by many therapists to be the ultimate source of anxiety, and the feelings, the ultimate source of the feelings of isolation of modern persons. And here we consider again, how existential therapists get help from the classics, in helping the patient deal with the ever present threat of death is present in a little child who sees a dead bird. The idea of keeping the death away from little children, I think is not only nonsense, but harmful. The little child already knows about it very early in his existence.

Abe Maslow wrote me a letter after his first heart attack. And in that letter, he said, My river… his house was on the Charles River in Cambridge… has never seemed so beautiful. And then at the end of the letter, he said, I wonder if we could love or love passionately, if we knew we’d never die. Now, the gods on Mount Olympus, who were immortal, were bored most of their existence. They needed in order to put zest into their experience, to fall in love with some mortal. Mortality had to be brought in to give renewal to immortality.

And here, this myth of Amphitryon was written for the 38th version by a modern French dramatist, namely Giraudoux, which he called Amphitryon 38, which played on Broadway when I was going to Broadway, some 30 years ago. And in this, he has Zeus falling in love with a mortal woman, and Zeus looks down from heaven, and sees her shadow against the window of her house, and he is so carried away by his yearning for this woman, that he cannot function, whatever the function was, of the head on Mount Olympus. So Mercury suggests to him, why don’t you go down and masquerade as her husband and achieve then some combination, some expression of your love? And what I want to quote to you is what Zues says on the way back, or when he comes back. What he says to Mercury after he has made love with this woman that he’s in love with. And Zues is worried. He says the mercury, she will say, when I am young, or when I am old, or when I die. This stabs us, Mercury. We missed something, Mercury. We missed the poignancy of the transient, that sweet sadness, of grasping for something we know we cannot hold.

Now passionate love arises out of the knowledge that we will die. Within this loneliness, this experience of loneliness that we have now, and we know that someday it will be complete. Within this loneliness, we need each other. And out of this loneliness, human beings are bonded in community. We love because we die. And death has meaning because we can love. We know we will love, we will lose each other someday in death. I think these are two beautiful phrases. We missed that sweet sadness of grasping for something we know we cannot hold, we miss the poignancy of the transient. And I think this poignancy of the transient, it helps me a great deal in my being. The presence that I want to be in relation to clients, I pass it on to you for your own meditation.

And now I come to the last point, namely the future. My topic assigned to me was existentialism and the future, existential therapy and the future. And I realized that predicting the future is always dangerous. But it’s always necessary. Because we live in terms always, of the next moment, or the next hour or the next year. I’d like to propose two scenarios that come out of this tremendous gathering of 7000 people on the problem of therapy. And the first scenario is, will we, in our culture, become a culture of therapists? Will we become a culture of people who seek to learn to help each other, whether it’s with voices or dogs, or cats or other human beings? Now, this is possible. I don’t think it’s very probable. The other prediction requires that we bring society into the picture, I look forward to a society which will have mastered the nuclear threat, a society which will be one of planetism. All countries, a society in which all countries would realize that there can be no country outside of the united nations of the world. A society that was shown to us symbolically, and the picture that the astronauts took from the heavens, where you had to look at the earth as a totality.

A society which will regard races and genders as equal, though each will bring to it its own particular distinctive contributions. And this will be I hope, a society in which computers will be our slaves, they will take care of the scut work, if I may say so. The rest of the human beings can spend, we can spend our time with Mozart and Beethoven and the great artists, we can spend our time with the humanities. In other words, I look forward to a new Renaissance, greater than the one in the 15th century, a new Renaissance which will unite, or reunite our passions in the great arts. And in short, I look forward to a society which will not have any need for psychotherapists. Thank you.

Pictured: Bruno Bettelheim

Discussion by Bruno Bettelheim

Mr. Chairman, Dr. May, ladies and gentlemen, we were all privileged to hear one of the best papers given at this conference. So I want you to view everything I’m going to say now under that perspective, that I think this was one of the best papers. Otherwise, if you don’t accept that, I couldn’t say the things I’m now intending to say.

Dr. May has painted for us a very beautiful picture of the future. He talked a great deal about Sophocles, but he didn’t give us the entire Sophocles. Firstly there are not only two but three Theban plays: Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus in Colonus, and Antigone. He described Oedipus in Colonus as a wise old man. What he didn’t tell us was that this wise old man cursed his sons. As he had been destroyed by his father, as he had destroyed his father, so he in turn destroyed his sons. And in Antigone, we learned that they killed each other. For more reasons than his Oedipal curse, his sons destroyed each other. Also, his beloved daughter, Antigone, got destroyed. So you see the curse of Oedipus, the generational conflict about which Dr. May did not talk. In this generational conflict, the father is subconsciously jealous of the fact that while he’s declining, his sons are coming into the full bloom of their power. Out of this parental jealousy arises destructive tendencies in the father’s unconscious against his sons, even while the sons have unconscious destructive tendencies against their parents.

Now, Doctor May also talked about the fact that death is what gave deeper significance to human life. Incidentally, the Greeks had a view of the gods similar to that as Giraudoux, a 20th century skeptical French writer. They didn’t consider their immortality a curse; they considered it a blessing. Be this as it may, there wouldn’t be any existential philosophy or existential therapy if Freud had not conceived of the concept of the death tendency of Thanatos. He said that eternal Eros is in eternal battle against Thanatos. Thanatos always wins in the end, since we all die. Dr. May not mention that this all comes from Freud, that there was no existential philosophy before Freud conceived of the death drive because Heusserl got it from Freud, Jaspers got it from Heusserl, Heidegger got it from Heusserl, and Satre got it from Heidegger — a direct line back to Freud. That’s why I cannot be as optimistic about the future, although I say this out of respect of Dr. May’s wishful thinking. And I know it’s wishful thinking because Thanatos, the destructive tendencies in man will not go away. They are here to stay. This is a depth of Freud’s tragic view of man and his conceptual structures.

Now, this is a conference on the evolution of psychotherapy, so maybe a few words should be said about where it all evolved from, because listening here, no one would have guessed that it all came from Freud and psychoanalysis. Dr. May spoke about some predictions he made some 30 years ago. Good for him. But Freud made a prediction more than 60 years ago, wondering what would happen to psycholanalysis in the future. He especially worried about what would happen to it in the United States, where he said it would be readily accepted. Indeed, with the exception of behavior modification, that manipulative therapy of man which is an American invention, all other psychotherapies directly and indirectly come from Freud. But listening to what is said here, you wouldn’t have guessed it. So the oedipal killing of the father is still going on. The solid wine of psychoanalysis has been watered down to such degree that everything of its substance and essence has been washed away and only the dregs remain.

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